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North Korea Crisis

North Korea calls off talks with South and threatens to cancel Trump summit

White House says it will continue plans for the meeting

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, speaks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.   © Kyodo

NEW YORK/SEOUL -- North Korea called off high-level talks with South Korea on Wednesday in response to joint military exercises between the South and the U.S., South Korean newswire Yonhap reported. Pyongyang also called into question the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and its leader Kim Jong Un.

According to Yonhap, the North's Korean Central News Agency called the Max Thunder drills a "flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation," in reference to the statement agreed to during the April 27 summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea's Kim.

The U.S. side said on Wednesday that the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore is still on. "We will continue to plan the meeting," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. Washington has received "no notification" of a position change by North Korea, she said. 

Senior officials led by South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and his Northern counterpart Ri Son Gwon were to meet in the truce village of Panmunjom, at the same Peace House where the leaders held their summit, to follow up on progress made during that historic meeting.

The Max Thunder drills, which began on Friday and are slated to take place over a two-week period, are to involve hundreds of warplanes including America's F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 strategic bombers -- high-grade aircraft that the North mentioned by name.

"This exercise targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula," Yonhap reported KCNA as saying.

"The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities," KCNA said.

Pentagon spokesman Rob Manning told reporters that the military drills are annual spring exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and are aimed "to maintain a foundation of military readiness." The defensive nature of these combined exercises, he said, "has been clear for many decades and has not changed."  

Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there are three scenarios that could be behind Pyongyang's actions. "First, this could be a return to brinkmanship diplomacy which North Korea has done many times before. They want to create a situation where U.S. President Donald Trump wants the June summit more than Kim Jong Un, so as to gain concessions," she said.

"The second scenario would be that there is disagreement within the North Korean leadership over the way the talks with the U.S. are going. It could be from the North Korean military or the Workers' Party." 

Otherwise, it could be the North Koreans expressing "dissatisfaction over the B-52 bomber, which can carry nuclear weapons" and goes against the spirit of denuclearization, Collins said. North Korea has called for the denuclearization of the entire peninsula, rather than the one-sided dismantlement of its own nuclear arsenal.

Frank Jannuzi, a former East Asian security expert on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said North Korea "may have felt that since they are suspending nuclear testing and missile testing, that they should demand some reciprocal confidence building measures by the US and South Korea."

"The North Koreans, who are savvy about US politics, have taken note of President Trump and his premature announcements about the summit and his over the top tweets about how the US and North Korea share the same objectives. They may have decided that President Trump needs this summit at least as much as they do politically."

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